Making The Most of The Time We Have

Join author, educator, and learner, Annmarie Kelly as she laughs, cries, and kvetches with the writers, musicians, entrepreneurs, and wanderers who inspire all of us to reach beyond our divisions and discover what it means to be wild, precious, and brave.

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Defy Expectations with Kirstin Chen

Defy Expectations with Kirstin Chen

Kirstin Chen’s recent book, COUNTERFEIT, is one of the most anticipated novels of the summer, in which two Asian American women grow a fake handbag scheme into a global enterprise. The book is full of twists and surprises and makes for a great beach or poolside reading. In this episode, Annmarie and Kirstin chat about luxury purses, fanny packs, daily yoga practice, and the dangers of the model minority myth.

Episode Sponsors:

Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Booksmith, an independent bookstore and mainstay of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district since 1976. Booksmith offers signed copies by local authors and ships worldwide. Shop online at booksmith.com.

And we’re brought to you by StoryStudio Chicago, a writing center located in Chicago and online, which helps writers hone their craft, express their creativity, and tell their stories. Find classes and workshops, and connect with other writers at storystudiochicago.org.



Books by Kirstin Chen:

Counterfeit

Bury What We Cannot Take

Soy Sauce for Beginners

Other Books and Music mentioned in this episode:

Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante

Forbidden City, by Vanessa Hua





Follow Kirstin Chen:

Facebook: @kirstinchen

Instagram: @kirstinchen

Twitter: @kirstin_chen

kirstinchen.com

Annmarie Kelly:
Wild Precious Life is brought to you in part by Booksmith, an independent bookstore and mainstay of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury district since 1976. Booksmith offers signed copies by local authors and ships worldwide. Shop online at booksmith.com. And we're brought to you by StoryStudio Chicago, a writing center located in Chicago and online, which helps writers hone their craft, express their creativity and tell their stories. Find classes and workshops and connect with other writers at storystudiochicago.org.

Annmarie Kelly:
So it's my 30th high school reunion this week, 30 years. I've found myself in the utterly irrational situation of believing I should probably lose 30 pounds before I go to it. I've considered dyeing my hair so nobody can see the gray. And the other day I asked my optometrist which progressive lenses would make me look the most like a 29 year old. He just laughed. I don't think of myself as a vain person, but I feel a mild sense of panic about seeing these folks again, as though my outward appearance is some sort of measuring stick for my inward one. As though if I wear the right outfit or shoes or chunky necklace, these will somehow convince the world or myself that I am put together and have everything all figured out, which is of course bananas. The illusion of put togetherness is something I cast off after high school.

Annmarie Kelly:
I don't want that back. Instead, I want authenticity and vulnerability and emotional honesty, and I'm probably not going to maximize any of those things if I only eat quinoa and dye my hair purple by Friday. So I'm going anyway. A couple of pounds heavier. I'm going. A few forehead wrinkles older. I'm going. Not to try to bamboozle anyone into thinking I have everything figured out, but just to show them that I'm out here, still trying, doing my best, like everybody else, and that we are still on this journey together. Maybe that's why I so thoroughly enjoyed the most recent book by today's guest.

Annmarie Kelly:
The women in Kirstin Chen's novel Counterfeit are also consumed with that disconnect between outward and inward appearances. We're going to dig into that today, but first, let me tell you about Kirstin. Kirstin Chen is the award-winning bestselling author of three novels. Her latest, Counterfeit, has been recommended by Entertainment Weekly, Vogue, Time, Oprah Daily, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and was recently chosen by Reese Witherspoon's book club. Television rights have been optioned by Sony Pictures. Kirstin's previous two novels are Bury What We Cannot Take and Soy Sauce for Beginners. Born and raised in Singapore, Kirstin now lives in San Francisco and teaches creative writing at the University of San Francisco and at Ashland University's low residency MFA program. Kirstin Chen, welcome to Wild Precious Life.

Kirstin Chen:
Thank you so much for having me.

Annmarie Kelly:
I am so delighted that you're here. This time of year, folks are always asking me about beach-y book club reads. And I usually get a little pissy and suggest something like, "Well, have you tried Dr. Zhivago?" Because, I mean, who says we can't be both thoughtful and entertained in the summertime? But I think what people are meaning with this request is they're like, "What is a book I can escape into?" And your most recent novel Counterfeit, really, it just tick all the boxes. It's escapist, it's thrilling and it's also full of these big ideas that we can chew on. It's just the full package. I'm just really excited to chat with you about it today.

Kirstin Chen:
Thank you so much for describing it in that way. That is how I think of it as well. I think of it as fun and escapist, but when I set out to write this book, there were some big ideas that I was really looking to explore but that's really the heart of the book for me. So it is so gratifying to hear you say that.

Annmarie Kelly:
No, I think it's completely all there, but before we dive in, I have had the great, good fortune to meet you and work with you because of your work with the Ashland MFA, but not everybody who's listening is going to know about the formidable and wonderful Kirstin Chen. So let's just have you open with our usual question, which is, will you please tell us your story?

Kirstin Chen:
Sure. I'm born and raised in Singapore. I moved to the U.S. at the age of 15 to attend boarding school. When I was an undergraduate in college, I walked into my first creative writing class completely by accident, thinking that it was a literature class on how to read short stories, as opposed to how to write short stories. The interesting thing about that class, I went to Stanford in the late nineties where there were very, very few humanities, there are very few humanities majors. At that time, it was the beginning of the tech boom and so nobody majored in humanities. And so I was completely shocked to walk into this humanities class that was full to the brim with students. And so even though I figured out very quickly that this was a creative writing class, not a literature class, I just said that I would just stay and figure out what was going on because I had never seen a class this crowded before.

Kirstin Chen:
And then I found out that there was a wait list for this class and people were really serious about taking it. It was a very, very popular class and that there was absolutely no way that I would get in until the professor said, "Well, who wants to submit the first story?" And nobody raised their hand. And I said, "Well, if I turn in the first story, will you let me take the class?" And he was like, "Yeah, sure." And so, I wrote my first story that week, ended up loving it. I feel like writing careers have a lot of serendipity in it and that was kind of my first little piece of good fortune, where a little bit of magic appeared out of nowhere and I was able to kind of seize that chance. And so that, I guess, is the beginning of my writing career.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh. Do you remember what that story was about?

Kirstin Chen:
I do. Of course, because it was completely autobiographical. When a lot of fiction writers start out and you almost feel like you're cheating, even though now I actually give a craft class on why writers should never feel guilty about using their autobiographies. But it was completely autobiographical. I think it was about me and my ex-boyfriend, but as if we were 10 years ahead and working.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love it.

Kirstin Chen:
Obviously it was terrible, but I thought it had some authenticity of emotion maybe.

Annmarie Kelly:
Oh my gosh, that is really excellent because I feel like what I would immediately do is I would look around at everybody in the class and without even ever having heard them I'd know they were all better writers than me and I wasn't talented. And then I probably would just drop the class and cry. So I'm so proud of you for not doing any of those things.

Kirstin Chen:
But I think it was because I had no expectations. I didn't think of myself as a writer. I was a comparative literature major. I had never taken a creative writing class. I'd probably never written creatively. I'd written term papers, I'd written my college essays and I think I just had no expectations and I know we all kind of invent through lines after the fact. But I do feel like that particular aspect has served me well in my writing life, because I can think of numerous times that, just not putting that kind of pressure on myself has really freed me to do a lot of things.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's really good advice actually. So you said you grew up in Singapore and went to boarding school. I feel like in the states we have a completely, I feel like we know on average, like one and a half or two things about Singapore and that's on us. So we know there are littering laws and we shouldn't throw some reds out the window because it'll be a $300 fine. And then we've read or watched Crazy Rich Asians. And I will be the first to admit that is surely not enough. So what can you tell us about your upbringing in Singapore? What else is magical about it?

Kirstin Chen:
I think I had a pretty idyllic childhood. Singapore is obviously a large cosmopolitan, sophisticated city, but extremely safe. When I was 12, 13, 11, I was off walking to school, taking the public bus to school. And so it was really idyllic in that way. I think at the time that I was growing up, the humanities were not something that was considered a serious topic. I think that's pretty common in a lot of East Asian countries. I think it's changed a little bit, but so my whole life, the definition of intelligence was, were you good at math and science. And writing, acting, music that was kind of like the side stuff that once you were good in math and science, then yes, it was great to have all that other stuff, but it was never given priority.

Kirstin Chen:
I was very lucky. However, because my mother is a professional musician. Yes, so she's an organist and she's a professor of music. And so even though I also had to be good at math and science, there's a no getting around that. I did know in, I think, in my heart of hearts that another path was possible.

Annmarie Kelly:
Do you remember what it was like? You said you came to America at 15 to go to boarding school. Was that thrilling? Was it terrifying? Was it the realization of all your parents' dreams, but you just wanted to go home? What was that like?

Kirstin Chen:
It was weird. It was my choice actually. So my brother went before me and so he kind of led the way and my parents were like, "Do you want to go as well?" Because he was doing really well in boarding school. And I think my parents had a sense of where my interests lay and that they were not necessarily going to be, so if I wanted to be a humanities major, if I wanted to write and read deeply, it wasn't going to be served in Singapore. I kind of think of it as a really selfless act on their part for giving me that option. Once I got there, I would say it was probably a combination of mystifying, more mystifying than terrifying. But I actually think that ignorance served me well, boarding school is a weird place.

Kirstin Chen:
Its social hierarchies, there's a lot of wealth. There's obviously drugs and alcohol because it's teenagers, relatively unsupervised. And I think that I was ignorant enough of the kind of social structures that it actually made me very safe. It's very easy to kind of get swept away by certain things. And because I didn't know enough about it. I think it actually helped me. And then my education was stellar. It was an excellent time in hindsight, but it's not for every teenager.

Annmarie Kelly:
I always wanted to go to boarding school. I always read all the boarding school novels, but I went to K through 12 public high school. Although a lot of those things you described were available to us.

Kirstin Chen:
It's part of every high school, less so in Singapore. That maybe is the difference.

Annmarie Kelly:
So your recent book, you've described your most recent novel, Counterfeit, as "the story of two Asian American women who band together to grow a counterfeit handbag scheme into a global enterprise, shattering the model minority myth along the way." It is fantastic. I got a sneak preview and it's a thrilling read. I guess, first off, what interested you in counterfit handbags?

Kirstin Chen:
It's a great question, Annmarie. The idea for this book quite honestly started as a joke. I was working on my last novel, Bury What We Cannot Take, which is a kind of weighty, historical novel set in 1950, Southern China. A very, very different book, you could probably already tell from that description. But it was a book that required an incredible amount of research. And I remember I was at the end of a particularly grueling day of research and I turned to my partner and I said, "Listen, the next book that I write is going to have to require zero research." And so it's going to have to be about a topic that I already know about. And the only one I can think of is designer handbags.

Kirstin Chen:
I happen to be an armchair expert on designer handbags. I'm a lover of fashion. I'm a lover of handbags in particular. I said that really just kind of blindly. And then a couple weeks later, I came across an article in the Washington Post about a real life con artist who had come up with this perfect handbag scheme. And it was so good that I was like, "That belongs in a novel." And that's when I thought, "Okay, maybe I could write a book about counterfeit handbags," which of course ended up requiring a lot of research.

Annmarie Kelly:
I was going to say, I feel like either you knew a whole lot about handbags or you ended up having to research.

Kirstin Chen:
Yes, yes, yes. So once I realized that the book was actually about counterfeit handbags and not luxury bags, which I don't even know what that novel would be if it was just about. But when I figured out it was about counterfeit handbags, it required a whole lot of research. And I ended up getting a research grant that let me go to Southern China. I visited the fake handbag markets. I toured a factory. I talked to lawyers who specialize in IP protections. I did a lot of research, but as research often is, the more you dig into a subject, the more interesting it becomes. And so I have all this knowledge now that I'm glad found its way to the book.

Annmarie Kelly:
So I'm fascinated by this so much to my children's chagrin. I have taken to wearing a fanny pack everywhere and not a bedazzled fanny pack, just this old beat up black, fanny pack. I'm at an amusement park, but perpetually. So I am possibly the least stylish person either of us knows. So help me out. What is the allure of an expensive bag? Is it easier to find my chapstick in there?

Kirstin Chen:
I would say there's probably no kind of utilitarian advantage to a designer handbag. Firstly, fanny packs are making a comeback, have made a comeback.

Annmarie Kelly:
Packs are back. I keep telling my kids that. I'm on the cutting edge of that.

Kirstin Chen:
Exactly. Exactly. That's the first thing I'd say. The second thing is, I don't think there is any utilitarian value whatsoever, but I think for me too, fashion in general, not just handbags, is a form of play. I do try to remember that, if it ever stops being fun and it feels like something you have to do that's a sign, "Okay. You've gone too far." And so for me, I think of it as play. I think of it as creative expression, but there is really no reason to buy a designer handbag. Just to be clear.

Annmarie Kelly:
You introduce us to this amazing world of one to one replicas. I was fascinated by this. I could tell that you had researched this. I never thought about, I get if you buy a fancy purse that's leather and I return it in plastic I get that's not the same thing. But if you buy a fancy purse and the one you return is identical, made from the same leather, has the same class, has made in Italy on the handle. It's not the exact one you bought, but it is. It's the same. And so they're returning these handbags and of course selling the others on this side. I was struck by not being terribly bothered that they were returning something that looked identical to the thing that someone else was going to buy. I was fascinated by the fact that I was on board with this supposed crime. Did you find yourself convinced or were you the whole time judging them? Do you have to believe in their scheme?

Kirstin Chen:
I think that is one of the kind of larger questions that the book is asking is, what makes something real? What gives something its value? What is the difference if the only difference is a serial number that's un-trackable inside a bag, is that really a value? Was that worth 10 times the value? Who's cheating whom? Yes. So these are questions that I'm really interested in. Did I ever feel that I was on board with a crime? That's an interesting, no, I would never commit that crime. But I do think the fact that the crime appears so benign really lent itself to exploring the questions that I was trying to ask, like who's being taken advantage of? What does it mean to be a model minority in a country where that tells you should be grateful for this status?

Kirstin Chen:
What does it mean to want more than that? So in some ways the counterfeit handbag scheme is a metaphor for the circumstances that these women live in. They were dealt a particular lot in life. And within those constraints, how are they going to pursue their version of the American dream? I will also add that I think the nature of the crime itself allowed me to explore humor and to make this a kind of funny, acerbic book in a way that at no other crime would've let me. And so that I really appreciate, I think the crime served the story in that white way as well. The fact that it is a very funny crime novel, even though there are serious consequences.

Annmarie Kelly:
Well, one of my favorite things is that it's not as though Louis Vuitton is necessarily produced in the home vineyard area of Louis Vuitton, wherever that even is. One of the things I found fascinating was that the factory where the actual authentic handbags are produced, in this book anyway, is right next to the other factory where the authentic one to one copies are produced. So when you went to your research trip was this part actually fairly true? Are you allowed to tell us?

Kirstin Chen:
The reason why that seems so outlandish to people is because the international brands and not all of them manufacture in China, but many of them do. But they go to great lengths to hide that. It's not something they advertise. The factory that I toured was a state-of-the-art, high end, very reputable factory that manufactured a lot of designer brands. And actually told me that I wasn't allowed to take pictures of them because the brands don't want that to get out. That is one of the questions. People say manufacturing in China as a blanket statement for poor quality, but there are state-of-the-art factories in China. There are sweat shops in Italy. The shorthand really doesn't capture the complexities of what's going on.

Annmarie Kelly:
They told you couldn't take pictures, but did they tell you couldn't write a novel about it.

Kirstin Chen:
They're in the acknowledgements, thanked in the acknowledgements. I don't know that they will be too happy with the book. But listen, if as a novelist you set out to please anyone it's hard to do good work, to please everyone rather.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's very true. Well, let's talk about the model minority myth. On the surface, if you just hear this phrase, it could sound to people like a good thing. Who wouldn't want to be part of the group that's held up as the model, but it's incredibly damaging, isn't it? I'm sure there might be folks who don't know. So what, in your words, is the model minority myth and why is it such a problem?

Kirstin Chen:
I'm glad you asked that question. Just kind of a basic overview and I'm not an expert, but this is my understanding of it. The model minority myth is this idea that a particular group, often East Asians, Asian Americans are polite, submissive, law abiding. And then also that they have achieved high levels of success due to their own hard work. And so yes, on the surface, it seems those are all positive. What's wrong with that? And I think that's one of the really insidious things about the myth is that for the generations, maybe a little bit older than me, maybe one or two generations above. They would probably turn to us, my generation and below and say, "You're being ungrateful." Even our parents and grandparents believe that they were lucky to be described in this way.

Kirstin Chen:
But I think one of the big problems with the model minority myth is firstly, it clearly pits people of color against each other. It's a way for people to say, "Well, look, they got by on their hard work. So clearly you can't get by because you're lazy." That's the first problem. The second thing is that it flattens differences between individuals. And so now all East Asians are seen as high achieving, good at math and we know that's not true. And we know that there are large groups of people left behind because they're told, "Well, you're a model minority. This issue doesn't plague your community." And so I think those are kind of very quickly a couple of the problems with the myth. And then also this idea that you should be grateful for this. And then the last thing I'll say is that it's a myth that very clearly frames East Asians as outsiders. You're the model minority, therefore you're not actually American. You're a model minority within America. And so then East Asians are in this position of constantly trying to prove like, "No, no, we are American enough."

Annmarie Kelly:
I think that anytime we take any one group of people and decide that they're all any kind of certain kind of way, we're already in dangerous and troublesome waters. Anytime we just assume that first off, even sometimes the word Asian, I think in America, is applied as this blanket. I understand, my mother's Italian. And so in general, that means from Italy, although she's never been there. So we've got some of these monikers that are just like one offs, but even the term Asian that is sweeping huge number of, are you kidding me? That word doesn't even encapsulate it. It erases difference even by being this one label that we toss at groups of people. Historically in America, I don't think we're great at that. I would not give us a gold star for how we portray groups of people as better than, or less than.

Annmarie Kelly:
And so what was so much fun in this book is to watch Winnie and Ava sort of shrug off the suppositions and stereotypes and assumptions. And they try on different personas when they're going to return a bag. "I'm returning a bag because I'm a bored housewife. Or I'm returning a bag because it's just not my color or I'm so sorry to be." They try an all number of personalities in their little plays to get these bags back and to get the money for them. But I like that you trash and break with these stereotypes that are incredibly harmful and that we do not need and they never served us and it is certainly time for them to go out the door.

Kirstin Chen:
I'm glad you mentioned that part because I think that is also one of the stereotypes of East Asian women in particular. They're strangely invisible, as an Asian American writer with my Asian American writer friends, we have this joke that we've all been mistaken for each other multiple times.

Annmarie Kelly:
Seriously.

Kirstin Chen:
Yes. Routinely, even by people you know. And it's on the one hand, very funny. On the other hand, it makes you feel like, "Well, I worked so hard to distinguish myself and the fact that I just get flattened is obviously harmful in many ways." But I think that's really what Ava and Winnie are doing. They're playing with the kind of invisibility of Asian women and using that to their advantage. And that was one of the real delights of writing this book, was watching these women be ingenious, again, given the constraints that were placed on them. Using those constraints as a weapon against the people who were holding it over them.

Annmarie Kelly:
A craft note, I don't know that I've ever read a book that plays with point of view in quite the same way that this one does. By point of view I mean, to people who are listening, who aren't readily folks, that you can be first person in telling the story about myself, or be second person and talking to a you, or be third person and were telling the story from the fly on the wall. So I love the way you move pretty seamlessly from this second person talking to the detective to then we get some other narration later in the book that shift and offer a little bit of a distance and in doing so. I'm not going to say this well, but so the book seems to be about what is true, what is real and what is fake in the bags. But also with the narration that you use, as a reader, I've got multiple truths and multiple realities from the point of views that you've chosen. And there's this gorgeous way that the text and the craft echo the plot with the bags.

Annmarie Kelly:
I assume you did this on purpose, but I'm just going to say it's masterful. And really, really was an example of point of view serving the narrative, not just cause you felt like doing second person that day, but it was really great.

Kirstin Chen:
Thanks. Thank you so much, Annmarie. That's really lovely to hear. And yes, I put a lot of thought and work into that. So I'm glad that it resonated. I have always thought of point of view as a tool for suspense, always. When I wrote my last novel, so the one prior to Counterfeit, Bury What We Cannot Take. It rotates to five different points of view. And the reason I wanted a book with this complicated structure was because each member of the family was keeping secrets from each other. And that was the way to bring that out because each of the characters would say something and they were completely oblivious to what the other person was thinking. And that's fun to write as a fiction writer.

Kirstin Chen:
It's a really great problem to have to work your way through. And so it was a similar approach with this. I will say that initially I tried to write the entire book as a confessional and so much would've been lost, as you can tell, because I liked the elegance of having a novel be just a tight police confessional. But there was no way to tease out the things that Ava was being unreliable about, which obviously in any police confessional, if the narrator has one goal, which is to set herself free or to lessen her sentence she's going to tell her story in a way that serves that goal. And there was no way to tease out the nuances. So that's when I realized, "Okay, there's going to have to be a couple of other different points of view otherwise we will never know what's true." I don't know that it's ever really true, but you have a sense of it, at least at the end of the book.

Annmarie Kelly:
There's a couple of times when Ava says something like, "No more secrets, no more lies." It was some of my favorite was like, "Oh, here comes a lie. Here comes a scene." Because of that intertextuality, because of that play between the narration. I just thought it was delightful to consider what was real and what was fake, just like with the bags. And also whether there was any harm in that. I definitely found myself toying around with, "Well, I mean, does she need to tell the truth right now?" "I don't know. Why?" They were also some other just delightful moments in the book, because there are lots of things I could talk about, but I don't want to spoil it because I know lots of people are going to read this. But there are just these relatable moments while amid counterfeit handbag ring. You're also having to get your kid in a preschool.

Annmarie Kelly:
It was so funny because I feel like as a person with a job and work life balances is real. That also amid your handbag counterfeit global ring, you're also going to have to be stressed about which preschool your kid's going to go to. And I have filled out those applications. I remember. So Ava has to try to get her son, Henry, into school and there're letters of reference. And I remember they were asking about my daughter's leadership skills and potential to lead. She was like two and a half, maybe three. And I'm looking at this kid smacking a stick against a pot. I don't know what, letters of reference, what would they even say? So I absolutely cracked up at your depiction of Ava trying to get her son Henry into school because you can be killing it at your counterfeit handbag job. But that doesn't mean that your kid's going to give a good interview at the age of two.

Kirstin Chen:
Yes because he can barely talk. It's true. And I also think this idea, especially where I live in San Francisco. It's a status symbol, just like a handbag where your kid goes to school. And I think the people who run those schools know that and are well aware of that as well. It's a culture that kind of feeds each other. And so I was thinking about that as nursery school, as status symbol, just the way a designer handbag might be.

Annmarie Kelly:
It made me think about all the things we do for status and most of us would not have assumed that where our kid went to preschool was one of them, but it totally was. It totally was. I remember ranking them in order. I really wanted my kid to get in here, but I would've been happy with here. And this, the bottom one, it was the lowest tier one. But you do get to a point where you realize, "Oh my gosh, she's just got to go somewhere." Like I said, I'm not a handbag person, but I also got to thinking about guilty pleasures and small happiness. We all like to consider ourselves reasonable and principled, but we all have our things. Don't we? Whether it's your shot glass collection or your beer mugs of the world or the magnets, everyone's got their thing.

Annmarie Kelly:
I am a card carrying library member, but man, I buy a lot of books. I buy books like other women might buy shoes. I have them on my shelves. I like to hold them and even when I've read it from the library, I'll often still buy it. I know in some ways it could be seen as wasteful. It's probably not good for the trees, but at the same time, that's my thing. That's my happiness. And we have to probably make peace with whatever it is for us.

Kirstin Chen:
And you're right. I love how you said that. And I think we could be very judgmental about what other people choose to spend money on. And we think like, "Oh, that's financially irresponsible." But we all have the thing we're willing to kind of ourselves a little bit for. I think your book thing is a real, if we were all really trying, we would all read eBooks, but I, like you, buy everything in hard cover. I'm with you.

Annmarie Kelly:
I have heard some news about Counterfeit and I don't know if we're allowed to share it. So you can just give me hand gestures if we're not talking about that yet. Because I know that this book is also not just going to be a book, but I feel like I saw that it's going to make its way to some screens somewhere. Is there news you can share with us about where this book is going?

Kirstin Chen:
Well, I will say the book has been optioned, so it has been optioned for TV. As you likely know, just because a book has been optioned, there is no guarantees. It's extremely difficult for a TV show to actually make it to a streaming service or what we used to say on air, but to a streaming service, more likely. The only reason I can't share much about is because we're in the very early stages, I'm not super involved in the project. I will say, I have an executive producer credit, so I am in touch with the team and they're lovely and they keep me updated. But I was never interested in doing the adaptation myself.

Annmarie Kelly:
Why not?

Kirstin Chen:
First because it's not my skillset. But I think I would have to learn a whole genre of writing I think [crosstalk 00:34:56]

Annmarie Kelly:
Learning a short story, for instance, or learning, say counterfeit handbags?

Kirstin Chen:
Maybe learning to write a poem more, something a little bit. I have not done that since maybe elementary school, but yes, I get your point. But I think more importantly, I think I would be too invested in that. And what I've learned just from the very short time that I've been exposed to this is that TV's incredibly collaborative. It's a writer's room for instance, and you have to be very, very unattached because the things that you spent your whole day writing can be cut immediately in a second. And I think that would be extremely difficult if it were my book.

Kirstin Chen:
I'm very interested in maybe being in a writer's room for somebody else's book because then it would be freeing in a different way. But for my own book, it would feel like I was writing the book over again. And I put my whole soul into this book and I don't want to go through it again and then have to explain to the 10 people or 50 people asking why it has to be a particular way. So I think I have a healthy involvement in the project, but just to be clear, we have no idea what's going to happen with it.

Annmarie Kelly:
All right. Well, I'm sending good vibes out there because I am the least fashionable person I know, but I can also never not watch, say The Devil Wears Prada, if I'm channel scrolling and if I see The Devil Wears Prada, I'm going to stop and watch it. Again, I am not fashionable. I don't even like, what's your face at the beginning? I'm Andy at the beginning of that story, spilling soup in my sweater's.

Kirstin Chen:
It's a good movie.

Annmarie Kelly:
I love movies about fashion. And so I don't know. I feel very strongly that we will hear more from this in the time to come. I'm excited to see what legs it has. But in the meantime, folks can absolutely buy it and, or check it out from the library. Both are wonderful. We always ask a few wrap up questions here at the end. Just pick one and fill in the blanks. So are you a coffee or tea person?

Kirstin Chen:
Both.

Annmarie Kelly:
Mountains or beach?

Kirstin Chen:
Neither. I'm a city person.

Annmarie Kelly:
You'll have to add that. Early bird or night owl?

Kirstin Chen:
Very much an early bird at about 7:00 PM I kind of stop working.

Annmarie Kelly:
Good to know.

Kirstin Chen:
My brain stops working.

Annmarie Kelly:
You power down. Loud or quiet?

Kirstin Chen:
Quiet.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yoga or karaoke book club?

Kirstin Chen:
That's a very tricky one. I do the yoga daily so that I have the few births of energy to do the karaoke book club. Kind of like how publishing is a blip in the writing life, karaoke book club is a blip in the yoga life, but you need both. You really do.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's your favorite yoga pose?

Kirstin Chen:
Oh gosh. I like standing on my head a lot. I think it's just a good way to just kind of shift perspective, to realize that things are not static.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's fantastic. And then what's your go to karaoke song? I've never attended karaoke book club, so do you guys all sing about the book? Is there catalog or do you have?

Kirstin Chen:
It's not that complicated. A group of my friends who are all Asian American women writers not by chance. Those are the only people I'm friends with. I don't know why I said that. But we started it because we wanted to read the Ferrante books. So we started it when the first Ferrante book came out, we decided we'd read them in order. And the Ferrante books are so melodramatic. That we were like, they're like eighties. If there was a soundtrack, there would be eighties anthem ballad, like arena rock or something plus ballads. And so we also really love karaoke. I'm not going to pretend that wasn't something we already did, but we would go out to dinner, talk about the books and then go sing about heartbreak and love.

Annmarie Kelly:
Are you, let's see, cake or pie?

Kirstin Chen:
Good question. Probably pie.

Annmarie Kelly:
And then this is a fill in the blank. If I wasn't working as a writer, I would be a....?

Kirstin Chen:
Oh gosh, I say this all the time. I could do something else, but I don't really know what that something else would be. I used to say like, "Oh, I'd be a yoga instructor." But then it was like, that's completely unrealistic. Very, very, very difficult to make a living as a yoga instructor. I don't know. Maybe I would find a small business. I don't mean like I would run a corporation, but I'd be a small time entrepreneur, because I think that's kind of what writing a book is. You're like a CEO of your own little business. If I were a baker or something, I could say like, "Oh, I'd run a bakery or a little boutique or something like that." I like the idea. I have gotten really attached to being my own boss and that's the part that would be hard to give up.

Annmarie Kelly:
The hours that you're working and then the hours that you're not and then those in between hours. I could see that. If you could time travel, would you rather go back in time or forward?

Kirstin Chen:
Probably back. I have nostalgia for the nineties like everybody else. They're pretty good years. I've never been that, even in terms of my reading, I don't generally gravitate toward things set in the future, all that much. Obviously there are exceptions. I'm not that curious of a person. I think that's what it is. It's not like I need to know what 10 years, I'm just not that curious. And so I'm like, "Oh, something that I've already experienced would be just fine."

Annmarie Kelly:
I don't know. Looking at all the research you surely did for this, I think you are a curious person, but maybe not future curious.

Kirstin Chen:
In a specific way.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's the thing quirky that folks don't know about you? Likes, loves, pet peeves?

Kirstin Chen:
Something quirky. I don't know how quirky. I'm a very normal person. Aside from the fact that I've built my life around two hours of yoga every morning, it's six o'clock in the morning. I guess that your face tells me. [crosstalk 00:41:13] I live in San Francisco so that feels pretty norm. And I've done this for 15 years, so it's such a part of my life. But I do realize now that as I said it out loud, that I am a true creature of routine. I am not easily bored. I think that serves me as a writer as well. That's one of the reasons I start a project and I don't get distracted. I don't write stories on the side. I don't write essays. I started novel. That's the only thing I work on for five years and that's completely satisfying to me and same way with my yoga. I started doing it in or around 2007 and very quickly became a daily Yogi and I never stopped.

Annmarie Kelly:
That's fantastic. I don't know, two hours worth of yoga poses. Can I just like, hang out and chat pose?

Kirstin Chen:
You repeat a lot. You repeat a lot. That's why it's boring. I mean, to me, it's not boring, but to the outside world, it probably looks pretty boring.

Annmarie Kelly:
What's a favorite book or a favorite movie or both?

Kirstin Chen:
I'm reading a lot of new books right now. And a lot of books by friends that have just come out or are about to come up. One that comes to mind right away is Forbidden City by a dear friend, Vanessa Hua. Have you read this?

Annmarie Kelly:
I have it on my nightstand. It's the second one. So I've got one above it and then it's next after that.

Kirstin Chen:
You got to tell me what you think. It's told from the point of view of Chairman Mao's mistress, who's this teenage girl from the village who comes to the capital to serve in his "dancing troop". But it's unexpected, it's moving. It's really unique and it feels so current and contemporary. So I would highly recommend it.

Annmarie Kelly:
I'm excited. And what's your favorite ice cream?

Kirstin Chen:
Mint chocolate chip.

Annmarie Kelly:
Good for this time of year. All right. And last one, if we were to take a picture of you really happy and doing something you love, what would we see?

Kirstin Chen:
I'm really content to just be home drinking coffee on a Saturday morning, watching grand slam tennis. You know that I'm a tennis fan.

Annmarie Kelly:
I do, I forgot to ask you.

Kirstin Chen:
Tennis fan.

Annmarie Kelly:
Yes. I was a big time tennis player growing up and then I know-

Kirstin Chen:
You were? I did not know that.

Annmarie Kelly:
I was.

Kirstin Chen:
Did you do the whole junior circuit?

Annmarie Kelly:
I grew up with a dad, he was a basketball player, but in his local city park where he played. You couldn't just get in a game. You had to wait, because you got to get, and so he picked up a racket and started hitting against it. Some guy was playing, so he taught himself tennis against a backboard in a city park. And then when he was a public school teacher, he was trying to be a basketball coach and it's like a hierarchy there, but the tennis coach job always seemed to be open. So he started coaching tennis.

Kirstin Chen:
Your dad was a tennis coach?

Annmarie Kelly:
So he started coaching tennis. Now I'll get together with my brothers and my sister and we'll play for family honor. Some of those games are more crushing. Thank you, Kirstin Chen for coming on the show today. You've talked about a novel is "a problem you create for yourself". And I've been thinking about that, we do make a lot of our own problems and we forget that since we are the one who's creating the puzzles, the solutions are probably inside of us too. And I love thinking about writing and living kind of like that way. So folks for people who are listening, this has been Kirstin Chen. She's the author of several novels, her most recent Counterfeit, which you're going to see on a bookshelf and gravitate toward just because that amazing cover is completely worth it. It's a terrific summer read. It's terrific anytime read. And you can find it wherever books are borrowed or sold.

Annmarie Kelly:
To everyone listening we are wishing you love and light wherever this day takes you. Be good to yourself. Be good to one another. And we'll see you again soon on this wild and precious journey. Wild Precious Life is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Special thanks to executive producers, Gerardo Orlando and Michael Deloya, producer Sarah Wilgroup. And audio engineer, Ian Douglas. Be sure to subscribe and follow us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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